Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sonnet 3 by William Shakespeare

Today, one of the early poems to the Fair Youth sequence. Throughout the first seventeen sonnets, Shakespeare is urging the Fair Youth to find a woman and have children. This particular poem uses a farming metaphor that results in (among other things) a rather bawdy sexual reference involving ploughing and a rather clever double meaning of the word "husbandry", which meant both "the care of a household" and "the cultivation or production of plants". First the poem, then the discussion.

Sonnet 3
by William Shakespeare

Look in thy glass, and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another,
Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest,
Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.
For where is she so fair whose uneared womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?
Or who is he so fond will be the tomb
Of his self-love, to stop posterity?
Thou art thy mother's glass, and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime;
So thou through windows of thine age shalt see,
Despite of wrinkles, this thy golden time.
  But if thou live remembered not to be,
  Die single, and thine image dies with thee.

Form: A Shakespearean sonnet, as per usual. This means it's written in iambic pentameter and rhymed ABABCDCDEFEFGG. You will note the "feminine" endings of the first four lines: viewest/renewest and another/mother each result in lines of 11 syllables, ending with an unstressed syllable known as a "feminine" ending.

Discussion: The poem is one of address, directed to the Fair Youth. The first quatrain says "Go to your mirror and give yourself a good talking to: You ought to have children now, and if you don't, you are depriving the world and, moreover, depriving some woman of being the mother of your children."

The second quatrain launches with the farming metaphor. First, the gist of the stanza: "There's no woman who wouldn't want to bear your children. And you shouldn't be so caught up in yourself to stop posterity by not breeding." Now a bit about the farm metaphor in the first two lines - he begins it with a reference to an "uneared womb" - an analogy in which the womb is a field, and is barren (lacking ears of corn), then refers to "the tillage of thy husbandry", a bawdy play on words, since tillage relates to ploughing, a word related to the sex act as well as to the act of turning soil in the field. A married man was called a husband then, as now, but the word meant both "the care of a household" (a reference to the source of the word husband) and to the raising of crops and animals. Naughty, naughty Will. The second two lines in this quatrain is a reference to vanity - Shakespeare asks if he's willing to go to his grave without having procreated, with an implication (I think) that the young man needs to pick a woman and get busy, and not be too fastidious in his selection process.

The third quatrain introduces yet another argument, and it's a more guilt-laden one, since the Bard invokes the Fair Youth's mother: "When your mother looks at you, she's reminded of her own beauty in her youth; similarly, if you have children, when you are old, you'll remember your time now." Although he doesn't go to the "give your mother some grandchildren and make her happy argument" directly, it's lingering there anyway in the reading in my opinion.

The final couplet is the real turn in this poem, in my opinion: "If you don't want to be remembered, then by all means, die single and without a 'copy' of yourself." The phrase "you selfish young man" is implied, don't you think? "Go ahead and die childless! The world will forget you!" Geez, Will, pile it on, why don't you?

You may listen to a good recitation of the poem in this YouTube presentation, which features a portrait of William Shakespeare and the text of the poem:

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